Kevin Sumlin, who coaches football for Texas A&M, entered the lobby of the JW Marriott and was swamped by humanity. “This is like walking into a bowl game,” Sumlin told Billy Kennedy, who coaches basketball at A&M. “Or the Final Four.”
Actually, the festivities Wednesday night in Buckhead were just that — festivities. The schools joining the SEC decided to throw a little party in the city where the league stages its football championship and, as is the case with anything involving SEC football, there turned out to be nothing little about it.
“They’re amazed,” Georgia president Michael Adams said, speaking of the delegations from A&M and Missouri and their reaction to the size of the throng. “I’m amazed.”
Estimates put the crowd at nearly 1,000 folks, most of them backers of A&M and Mizzou. (Speaking of which: A staple Missouri cheer goes “M-I-Z,” to which the proper response is “Z-O-U.” And the traditional Aggie greeting is, “Howdy!” There’ll be a quiz later.)
“What a turnout,” said SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who has seen a crowd or two.
Said Gary Pinkel, Missouri’s coach: “[Joining the SEC] is huge for our fans. It’s been good for ticket sales, and it’s been very, very good for recruiting. … Recruiting in the SEC has been nothing but positive for us. Everyone believes the SEC plays the best football, and to high school kids there’s no question who’s the best.”
Missouri’s first SEC game will come Sept. 8, when it plays Georgia in Columbia. A&M gets its SEC christening that same day against Florida in College Station. “Two pretty big names right off the bat,” said Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who has worked both in Athens and Gainesville.
And it’s not as if the Bulldogs and Gators are in the habit of visiting either place. This will be new — and potentially frazzling — for everybody concerned. But what’s life without variety? Without risk?
Said Sumlin: “Unless you’ve been [to College Station], it’s hard to understand. ESPN named it the No. 1 gameday experience, and those folks go a lot of places. I’ve been in both locker rooms, and I know what Kyle Field means.”
Pinkel on the Georgia game: “Our place will be pretty cramped.”
For the record, 2012 won’t mark the first rodeo for either Mizzou or A&M. They’re exiting the Big 12, which was itself a fusion of the Big 8 and the Southwest Conference. But in contemporary college football, there are essentially only two brands — the SEC and everybody else.
Pinkel again: “This league is like the NFL — every week you’ve got to play well.”
How the newbies will fare among the upper crust remains to be seen, but it’s clear from the enthusiasm expressed Wednesday that both sets of fans are thrilled to have rich new neighbors. Otherwise they wouldn’t have held an open house in a different time zone.
But it was nice for those of us who’ve been around the SEC for a while now. This correspondent was given his first taste of the Aggie Way, which is to be confused with no other. After Sumlin and Kennedy greeted their constituents in a packed meeting room, the floor was yielded to two Aggie yell leaders, who, not entirely surprisingly, led a yell. But the composition thereof left these ears in search of translation.
An obliging yell leader provided one. Said Drew Nelson: “That one goes, ‘Farmers, fight! Farmers, fight! Farmers, farmers, fight, fight!’ And then, ‘Ay-WHOOP!’”
That’s “Ay-WHOOP!” — not to be confused with “Pig, Sooey!” — and it’s accentuated by clasping one’s hands, extending and twining the index fingers and throwing those hands and fingers over one shoulder.
Said Nelson: “You’ll be hearing, ‘Ay-WHOOP!’ a lot.”
Sumlin, who performed the hand gesture like a champ, has been hearing about nothing except his new league. Flying back from the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day, he and his family changed planes at Hartsfield-Jackson. “My son had on an Aggie hat, and some people recognized me. For 20 minutes they followed us through the airport saying, ‘Welcome to the SEC, coach.’ That was pretty cool.”
Welcome to the Aggies. Welcome to M-I-Z, and to Z-O-U, too. A big Ay-WHOOP to one and all.
By Mark Bradley